Like Pit Bulls and pornography, wolfdogs can be tough to identify, regardless of laws passed to limit them. Several years ago, the USDA released a report estimating that there were about 300,000 wolfdogs in the US; how they came to this metric is unclear, as the numbers are impossible to nail down. Some people deny their pets’ heritage, while others claim their 100 percent dogs are part wolf. In fact, experts say that the vast majority of animals sold (or bragged about) as wolfdogs actually possess very low wolf content, or none at all.
Part of the problem is that there’s no clear definition of what a wolfdog is, says Nancy Brown, director of Full Moon Farm, a wolfdog rescue and sanctuary in Black Mountain, N.C. Most experts use the term to describe an animal with a pure wolf in its family, no more than four or five generations back. But there’s no way of proving any animal’s pedigree, as there is no breed registry (and no such thing as “papers” for a wolf or wolfdog, no matter what those who breed them contend). Genetic testing is theoretically possible but, as it is reserved for wildlife management and law-enforcement agencies, is essentially unavailable to individuals. Phenotyping — having an expert evaluate an animal’s physical and behavioral characteristics — remains the most accessible way to identify a wolfdog. Unfortunately, few are trained in phenotyping wolfdogs and, as a result, many dogs are erroneously labeled.
Even if you could draw its family tree, there’s no way to predict an animal’s “wolfiness,” says Stephen L. Zawistowski, PhD, executive vice president and science advisor for the ASPCA. “I’ve seen ads for animals that are ‘98 percent pure wolf,’ but these are bogus numbers,” he says. “These claims are based on the misguided belief that genes blend like food coloring: if you take half red and half blue, you get a nice, even purple.” In reality, he says, genes “blend” more like marbles. Say you have a dog, represented by 20 red marbles, and a wolf, represented by 20 blue ones. If you breed the two, you’ll get 10 marbles from each parent, so you’ll have half of each color; this is an F1 (Filial 1, or first filial generation) cross. But in subsequent generations, you’ll get a random assortment of red and blue from each parent. So the individual offspring of two F1, 50/50 wolfdogs (an F2 cross, a generation removed from full wolf) could have anywhere from three-quarters wolf genes and one-quarter dog genes to three-quarters dog and one-quarter wolf — yet all will be considered one-half wolf. Thus, he says, you can see enormous variations among wolfdogs, even those who come from the same litter.
Knowing an individual animal’s filial number — the number of generations it is removed from a pure wolf — is probably the best way to speculate about its future behavior and potential problems, says Kim Miles, vice president of the Florida Lupine Association, a wolfdog advocacy group. “Wolfdogs aren’t easily pegged because they’re essentially a combination of wild and domesticated animals.” According to Miles, the biggest difference between a wild and a domestic animal is its tractability, or the ease with which it can be managed or controlled. “A dog is like a 12-year-old child, and a wolf is like a 35-year-old man. The dog will generally do what you want it to, but the wolf will do what you want only if he wants to do it himself.”
Experts agree that the vast majority of wolfdog breeders are selling dogs with little or no wolf content, despite the fact that the animals fetch as much as $2,500 apiece. Moreover, the majority of “wolfdogs” being kept as pets — and being surrendered to shelters and sanctuaries — are all dog, too. “I’d say about 70 percent of the so-called ‘wolfdogs’ out there are not wolfdogs at all,” notes Ken Collings, director of Wolfdog Rescue Resources, Inc., a national rescue organization headquartered in Stafford, Va. “Individuals take Malamutes, Shepherds and other dogs and cross-breed them until they get an animal who looks like a wolf. And because most people [who want a wolfdog] are uneducated [about them] and have no idea what they’re looking at, they buy it.”